The past few days have borne witness to a whirlwind of excitement in the world of geopolitics- excitement born out of a sense of collective fear and negativity. Twitter users around the world woke up on the January 3, 2020, to see #WWIII as one of the top social media trends. Yet despite the collective global fear about the developments in Iran immediately following General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, the concerns about WW3 may well be unfounded. The stakes are high, and the potential for a limited war is extremely likely. Yet, to say that the Third World War is inevitable is incorrect- and this is not the result of the public’s futile hopes for a diplomatic solution, but a ground reality based on fact.
Following last night’s missile strikes on Al-Asad Air Base in northern Iraq, the Iranian government issued a series of threats against a variety of US allies in the Middle East. The two most outlandish and quoted of these threats have been against the UAE and Israel, with Tehran threatening to use Hezbollah militias to conduct terrorist attacks in Dubai and Haifa respectively. The escalating rhetoric from both Washington and Tehran at first glance may appear to be a call to arms, but a deeper look shows that it is really just coded calls for restraint aimed at one another. Iran hopes that its escalating talk of war and violence will pressurise American allies in the region to a point where they have to work together to prevent Donald Trump from deploying ground troops in Iran, thereby ending the looming threat of World War Three.
Despite Washington’s best efforts to gather support for its cause among allies, it is highly doubtful as to whether or not they will concede to the USA’s demands. It is true that most of the USA’s major European allies- Britain, France and Germany- have all faced off with Iran in the past year or have outstanding differences with Tehran. The UK had a tense face-off with Iran in July 2019, following Britain’s detention of an Iranian oil tanker, Grace 1, on the charge of evading sanctions and smuggling crude oil to Syria. Iran responded with the capture of British ships Mesdar and Stena Impero. After two months of tense negotiations, both sides relented and the ships were freed.
After such a showdown, caused as a result of Whitehall pursuing American national interest on the basis of London’s ‘Special Relationship’ with Washington, the UK will try to not become involved in a military confrontation with Iran. With the UK poised to leave the EU on the January 31, PM Boris Johnson will not want anything to distract from Brexit, viewed by many in the Conservative Party as Johnson’s greatest political triumph.
France has already expressed its concern about the escalating tensions between the USA and Iran. France and Iran had a severe diplomatic spat in late 2018, with France publicly declaring that Iran’s intelligence agencies were involved in an attempted bomb plot in Paris aimed at targeting a meeting of Iranian dissidents. Responding in 2019, Iran jailed two French academics on charges of espionage. The charges against the duo were dropped in January once France proposed to solve the US-Iran standoff diplomatically.
While France continues to push for a diplomatic solution, it has still strengthened the security levels for the 160 French troops deployed in Iraq. However, this is little but a token gesture, aimed at creating a facade of apparent NATO unity while refraining from getting involved in what is viewed as an American war.
Finally, Germany refuses to become entangled in any war against Iran. While Germany did voice support for the American assassination of General Soleimani, and was criticised by Iran for it, it is averse to supporting President Trump’s military activities against Iran. In fact, Germany has rapidly started withdrawing some of its troops from Iraq already.
The different lines of action being taken by France and Germany indicate that there is fractured support for war against Iran among NATO members. And despite certain shared views on the matter, no European ally of the USA is willing to go to war with Iran.
In the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the USA’s main regional allies, neither of them want a conventional war with Iran either. Despite the tensions between the USA and Iran, UAE’s Energy Minister has rubbished what he calls exaggerations regarding WW3. Yet the UAE is quietly working on securing its oil routes in case war does break out- and even if it doesn’t the actions the UAE is taking now will increase its standing as a regional power. The UAE has started quietly lobbying in Washington so that an Emirati company, DP World, is given the contract to invest in a construction project in Port Sudan. Such an investment will allow the UAE to transport oil via the Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal and Bab-el Mandeb strait to markets in Europe, Asia and beyond. In case of war, the Straits of Hormuz will be blockaded- which would otherwise have left the UAE in a lurch.
From a strategic standpoint, war is not a feasible reality for the USA. The only two routes into Iran are through the south and north. A US landing in southern Iran would face the full might of the Iranian navy, and even then the invading American troops would have to traverse across wide desert and mountains to reach Tehran in the north. The invasion would also see widespread destruction in major Iranian port cities, such as Chabahar, where India is working on a port project. An invasion from the north would require American bases in Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, which are firmly part of Russia’s CSTO bloc. With the current tensions between Russia and the West, it is unlikely that the US will have this opportunity. An invasion from the west is most likely, since US forces in Iraq would be able to move eastward toward Tehran. Yet still, the terrain is rough and Tehran is extremely far away. Additionally, the western Iranian province of Khuzestan has borne witness to a decades-long separatist insurgency by the Sunni Arab population dominating the province. Violent interactions with invading American troops could quickly spiral into a Wahhabi insurgency funded by Saudi money.
In conclusion, chances - if at all - of even a localised conflict spiralling into the Third World War may be remote. Despite what one might like to excitedly proclaim to one’s friends, the real possibility is either a violent skirmish or an intense diplomatic showdown where both sides - Trump especially - may be able to walk away claiming a victory for the galleries.
It is, and will be, ‘peace in our time’.